In danger of becoming as well known for his good looks as for his movies, Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg entered into the spirit of child's play with fellow director Lars von Trier ("Breaking the Waves" 1996), taking a "Vow of Chastity" as part of their "Dogma 95" and finding liberation in the self-imposed limits. Though the tireless self-promoter won both praise and scorn for his half-serious, half tongue-in-cheek embrace of Dogma 95, with some parties sneering he wasn't exactly "reinventing the wheel" by walking in the footprints of Cassavetes, De Sica and Altman, he certainly backed all the talk with a brilliant film adhering to the manifesto's edicts, "Festen/The Celebration" (1998), an expertly paced melodrama employing child abuse as a catalyst to explore unbridled machismo, patriarchal arrogance and the prevalence of Danish racism. His feature debut, "De Storste helte/The Greatest Heroes" (1996), had been a fairly typical example of the "road movie" genre and paled in comparison.
Vinterberg became established with his thesis film "Last Round" (1993), which won the jury and producer's awards at the International Student Film Festival in Munich and first prize in Tel Aviv. He followed with the TV drama "Dregen der Gik Baglaens/The Boy Who Walked Backwards" (1995) and "The Greatest Heroes" before hitting the mother lode of critical acclaim with "The Celebration". Wishing to evoke the dramatic breadth of Strindberg and the cinematic panache of Bergman, Vinterberg unleashed his video cameras (fudging Dogma 95 principles a bit by later blowing the video up to the prescribed 35mm) on an upper-class, dysfunctional Danish family, with friends, spouses and lovers in tow, as they mark the patriarch's 60th birthday. When the oldest son Christian, displaying the melancholy and mordant wit of a latter day Hamlet, calmly accuses his father of incest before the assembled, it sets the stage for a long night (and even the next morning) of revelation, and the frenetic hand-held camera movements perfectly captured the film's nervous evocation of moral chaos. The running gag is how the party never ends, that no matter what appalling act has just been disclosed, the guests never drop their sense of propriety. Their attitude is, "Let's have our coffee."
"The Celebration" is an audacious film, in keeping with its creator's brashness, but time will tell if it, von Trier's "The Idiots" (1998) and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's "Mifune" (1999) are the only products of Dogma 95's gimmicky genre. Though the style worked for "The Celebration", it must be said that screenwriters Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov supplied outstanding raw material for the experiment, a story so compelling that audiences forgave the film's grainy texture and lack of conventional polish. If the director adheres to the manifesto's rules for subsequent films, one wonders if moviegoers will have continued patience for such a "home movies" flavor. Certainly the onus will be on Vinterberg to provide scintillating tales that take the viewers' minds off what they are missing.